Eritrea: Forget “rights” and speak of duties and responsibilities

The concept of “rights” doesn’t meaningfully exist in the state vocabulary of today’s Eritrea. The idea has been replaced by “duty and responsibility.”

By Abraham T. Zere
Originally published by PEN International for Human Rights Day 2019.
Published in Volume 1, Issue 2 of The Sparkplug
July 2020

Afwerki departing for a 2-day trip to Ethiopia under COVID-19 lockdown in May 2020. Still via Eri-TV.

The state media apparatus constantly pounds into citizens the need to carry out their duties rather than wasting time by asking about rights.

For insight, try googling without quotes <expressed readiness,> (Shabait1 is the government’s official news organ) and skim the headlines. Alternatively, enter keywords such as “duty” or “responsibility” and look at the results. Then enter “rights.” The latter search mostly produces results in relation to the website’s “copyrights”.

Although the comprehensive repression applies to all sectors, let’s pick, say, “freedom of expression2.” Eritrea has been ranked3 by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as the “most censored country in the world” (2015 and 2019). It anchored the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ annual survey of Press Freedom Index for 10 consecutive years (2007-2017). All independent media4 have been banned in Eritrea since September 2001 and those outlets’ editors have been kept in incommunicado detention5 since then. The country gradually slipped into a boundless abyss, expelling all international correspondents, banning NGOs and barring civil society organisations, effectively keeping the populace in total isolation.

This grim reality created a new, tightly repressed world for Eritreans. Resistance was reduced to refraining from applauding the state’s irrational policies. Remaining silent and even the very act of staying in the country rather than fleeing (the regime’s repressive policies force many to flee and it is tacitly encouraged as many in power benefit from the complex racket of human trafficking) are now practically the only forms of dissidence.

The flight of much of Eritrea’s productive human capital has emptied it at an alarming pace. A group photo could not be reproduced a few weeks later since it would undoubtedly be missing some of its former subjects, who would either have fled, disappeared or been forcibly removed. This is even more pronounced on state TV, with any footage showing incarcerated6 exiled former state officials or artists prohibited. The ranks of personalities joining such lists have soared to such a level that hardly any clip can be played without being heavily doctored.

Fear has been institutionalised7. Words have lost their original meanings. Direct communication has become nearly impossible in the face of comprehensive online and offline surveillance. In this vacuum, a new coded language with double metaphors has developed.

While the regime has brutally squashed all communications inside the country, it has employed another means to silence independent voices in the far-flung Eritrean diaspora. Aggressive, coordinated trolling8, character assassination and threats are widely deployed. When unable to deter criticism through such methods, the Ministry of Information will respond more directly. When I published an article in Al Jazeera English9 in July 2017, Eritrea’s Ministry of Information issued an official response10 dismissing me as “a notorious author who routinely engages in a smear campaign against the country.”

Even physical attacks11 by the regime’s supporters aren’t out of bounds, as seen in November 2018 in the case of Martin Plaut, a former BBC journalist who writes on Eritrea extensively, and again in November 2019 with exiled Eritrean journalist Amanuel Eyasu. Both incidents took place in London. Among the regime toadies, the hooligans who mount such attacks have been hailed as heroes12, while the Eritrean embassy in the UK has not condemned the actions.

Dashed hopes

For the last two decades, the Eritrean regime has used the unsettled border conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia as its sole excuse for brutally repressing its populace.

The historic peace deal with Ethiopia that crowned Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with the Nobel Peace Prize13 raised hopes that the situation in Eritrea would begin to improve. Those hopes have since sputtered. No redress for the country’s most outstanding issues has occurred. No action on the release of thousands of prisoners of conscience, no implementation of the ratified constitution, no restoration of the indefinite national service to its statutory 18-month limit, no resumption of import and export businesses, no construction permits, no release of incarcerated journalists or allowance of a free press… none of these longstanding issues have been addressed.

The brief opening of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border enabled many nationals to snatch a glimpse of the outside world. Many Eritreans quickly realised that President Isaias Afwerki14 was attempting to prolong his power. Having eliminated15 the border tension, seen the lifting of longstanding U.N. sanctions and been allowed to join the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, Afwerki is emboldened more than ever.

In November 2018, several months after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the peace deal, the president sat with the local media for an interview. Even in his usual comforting interview-cum-lecture format, in which he only addresses pre-approved questions, Afwerki ranted incoherently16 about global dynamics. The second part of that interview had been advertised to address domestic issues. One year and a month have elapsed since then, and Eritreans are still waiting for it.

The ending of hostilities with Ethiopia, however, did open other possibilities. Two diaspora-based TV stations began broadcasting to Eritrea via satellite dishes. The information monopoly thus had been revoked, and the populace started to communicate horizontally. This represents a major threat to a regime that has enjoyed total information control, surviving mainly by instilling fear and keeping citizens in isolation. Finally enjoying unmediated communication17, Eritreans inside the country discovered that contrary to how the state media had been portraying the situation, the majority of the Eritrean diaspora realised and felt the pain of compatriots inside the country.

This opened the door to citizen journalism where nationals could bravely feed truth to opposition media outside the country, while others could start bypassing restrictions by distributing pamphlets, drawing graffiti, and boldly calling for an end to the regime.

Now the Eritrean regime, growing ever more nervous, is trying to quash such moves, arbitrarily arresting citizens on wild conspiracy charges and suspicions. At this stage, anyone who does not publicly declare support for the state’s irrational acts and express his or her adoration for the president will potentially be considered an opponent.

In a series of recent roundups that has targeted the arts and media community, many Eritreans have been summarily imprisoned. According to the information I have received, none of them have been brought before an independent court, and many remain in incommunicado detention. A few lucky ones have fled to Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries.

Can such repression continue forever? History says otherwise.

Abraham T. Zere

Abraham T. Zere is US-based exiled Eritrean writer/journalist whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Mail & Guardian, Index on Censorship Magazine, among others. Having published his short stories in Dissent Magazine and Berfrois, his debut collection of short stories in Tigrinya⁠—ካልእ ስለ ዘየሎ (2020)⁠—was published by Emkulu Publisher. With Daniel R. Mekonnen and Tedros Abraham he edited Uncensored Voices: Essays and Poems and Art Works by Exiled Eritreans (Loecker Erhard Verlag, 2018) and with Tedros Abraham co-translated Dawit Isaak: Hope and other Texts (Reporters Without Borders–Sweden, 2018) from Tigrinya into English.